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Food poisoning and leftovers: How long can I store leftovers in the fridge?

6 minute read
Man looking in his fridge at a piece of pizza to see if the leftovers are still edible.

Eyeing off last weekend’s curry in the fridge? Reaching for some leftover chicken to use in a sandwich? Thinking of reheating that stir-fry?

Most of our fridges play host to leftovers. In fact, nib foundation partner, OzHarvest estimates that over 7.3 million tonnes of food goes to waste each year in Australia alone, and a third of this comes from our homes. Eating leftovers not only helps reduce waste, but it can also reduce your food budget.

But, when it comes to leftovers, how you store and reheat them can make all the difference if you want to avoid an unpleasant food poisoning incident.

What is food poisoning and what causes it?

Food poisoning, or ‘foodborne illness’ is caused by harmful germs, including bacteria in contaminated food according to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). Unfortunately, these germs typically won’t affect the taste, smell or appearance of your food, so it’s impossible to tell whether it’s safe or not.

The most common signs and symptoms of food poisoning are either gastroenteritis-like in nature; think abdominal cramps, diarrhoea or vomiting, or flu-like symptoms, with headaches potentially added to the unpleasant mix.

While food poisoning will generally self-resolve, the the Government’s Healthdirect site notes that those who have a weakened immune system, are pregnant, elderly or very young are at greater risk of both being affected by food poisoning bugs and of experiencing serious complications.

How do your leftovers develop bacteria?

Food poisoning bacteria that survive the cooking process can start to multiply when hot food cools down until it hits 5ºC according to FSANZ. That’s why it’s essential to quickly get your leftover food into the fridge or freezer.

When these same leftovers are taken from your fridge to reheat, bacteria can start to multiply once the temperature rises above 5ºC, stopping only when the food reaches 60ºC. That’s why rapid reheating is recommended to prevent food poisoning (or immediate consumption of chilled leftovers such as salads or boiled eggs).

7 food safety tips when storing leftovers

Store them as soon as possible

Leaving your casserole or mashed potatoes on the bench overnight will render them high risk. FSANZ recommends rapid cooling, taking the food from 60ºC to 21ºC in a maximum of two hours, and from 21ºC to 5ºC in a maximum of four hours. Not sure where in the fridge to put your food? OzHarvest has given us this handy guide:

Credit: OzHarvest

Use ice packs or fridge bags

This will help keep your leftovers cool when transporting them between home, work or school.

Use labels on storage containers

And, make sure you include the date and contents on the label! Given the rule of thumb when it comes to eating leftovers of an unknown storage date is ‘if in doubt, throw it out’, this will reduce your food waste

Store correctly

Ensure your leftovers are stored in small enough portions to allow for proper cooling and reheating (we’ve all put the giant block of frozen curry in the microwave, only to burn the edges and still have an icy – bacteria breeding – centre to contend with)

Keep raw and cooked foods separate

Cross-contamination can easily occur when raw and cooked foods cross paths in storage. Raw meats and poultry should be stored on the bottom shelf so juices don’t contaminate food on the lower shelves (a single drop of chicken juice can give you a nasty bout of salmonella which can leave you sick for weeks)

Rotate leftovers

Ensure food that is set to expire soon is at the front and fresher food is at the back – this will decrease the amount of food you waste and save you money and time. If you know it’s unlikely you’ll eat it all, OzHarvest recommends freezing your freshest leftovers and gobbling up the rest. Remember to only reheat frozen cooked meals once, however, uncooked meat can be frozen more than once if it’s been defrosted safely in the fridge

Reheat with care

Ensure food is heated evenly, with no cold pockets where bacteria can live by stirring regularly while reheating. Your goal is to reduce the time food spends between five and 60 degrees, as this is when bacteria can quickly multiply. Improperly cooled and reheated meat, poultry dishes, soups and casseroles can become infected with a bacteria called clostridium perfringens, which can cause intense abdominal cramps and diarrhoea over a 24-hour period

How long can you safely store various leftovers?

Different food can be stored for different amounts of time, though a good guide is to keep it no more than three to four days in the refrigerator (anything you’re unlikely to eat in that time is better stored in your freezer – don’t forget to label!)

That said, here’s a handy cheat sheet of the more common leftover foods and how long you can store them safely:

Type Refrigerator (4°C or below) Freezer (-18°C or below)
Cooked meat and poultry 3 to 4 days 2 to 6 months
Raw poultry and raw ground meet 1 to 2 days 9 to 12 months
Raw fish 1 to 2 days 2 to 8 months
Raw meat (beef, veal, lamb and pork) 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Cooked rice or pasta 3 days 1 month
Egg, chicken, ham, tuna and macaroni salads 3 to 4 days Does not freeze well
Fully cooked sausages (chicken, turkey, pork and beef) 1 week 1 to 2 months
Hard-boiled eggs 1 week Do not freeze
Opened package or deli-sliced luncheon meat 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
Pizza 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Roasted vegetables 3 to 4 days Does not freeze well
Soups, non-dairy sauces and casseroles with vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months

We spoke with OzHarvest CEO and Founder, Ronni Kahn, for her top tips on fighting food waste at home. As Ronni explains, good food saving habits starts when you: Look. Buy. Store. Cook.

  • Look at what food you have in stock before you go shopping
  • Buy only what you need
  • Store food correctly to help it last longer
  • Cook up what you have in stock before you buy more

“Cutting back on our individual food waste is the single most powerful way we can take direct action against climate change. It’s an easy win, both for your pocket and the planet. Small changes at home can make a big impact when it comes to reducing your food waste,” says Ronni.

At nib, we’re passionate about eating well for both our own, and the planet’s health. Keen to find out more about eating sustainably? We partnered with Dietitian, Sarah Leung for our article, 4 quick ways to climate hack your diet.

OzHarvest has partnered with nib foundation to expand its reach in the Newcastle, Lower Hunter and Port Stephens area. The latest funding from nib foundation provided OzHarvest with a third vehicle, meaning more frequent food pickups and deliveries to an increasing number of local charities.

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